The Romantic Adventures of a Milkmaid, by Thomas Hardy

Chapter 3

The day, as she had prognosticated, turned out fine; for weather-wisdom was imbibed with their milk-sops by the children of the Exe Vale. The impending meeting excited Margery, and she performed her duties in her father’s house with mechanical unconsciousness.

Milking, skimming, cheesemaking were done. Her father was asleep in the settle, the milkmen and maids were gone home to their cottages, and the clock showed a quarter to eight. She dressed herself with care, went to the top of the garden, and looked over the stile. The view was eastward, and a great moon hung before her in a sky which had not a cloud. Nothing was moving except on the minutest scale, and she remained leaning over, the night-hawk sounding his croud from the bough of an isolated tree on the open hill side.

Here Margery waited till the appointed time had passed by three-quarters of an hour; but no Baron came. She had been full of an idea, and her heart sank with disappointment. Then at last the pacing of a horse became audible on the soft path without, leading up from the water-meads, simultaneously with which she beheld the form of the stranger, riding home, as he had said.

The moonlight so flooded her face as to make her very conspicuous in the garden-gap. ‘Ah my maiden — what is your name — Margery!’ he said. ‘How came you here? But of course I remember — we were to meet. And it was to be at eight — proh pudor! — I have kept you waiting!’

‘It doesn’t matter, sir. I’ve thought of something.’

‘Thought of something?’

‘Yes, sir. You said this morning that I was to think what I would like best in the world, and I have made up my mind.’

‘I did say so — to be sure I did,’ he replied, collecting his thoughts. ‘I remember to have had good reason for gratitude to you.’ He placed his hand to his brow, and in a minute alighted, and came up to her with the bridle in his hand. ‘I was to give you a treat or present, and you could not think of one. Now you have done so. Let me hear what it is, and I’ll be as good as my word.’

‘To go to the Yeomanry Ball that’s to be given this month.’

‘The Yeomanry Ball — Yeomanry Ball?’ he murmured, as if, of all requests in the world, this was what he had least expected. ‘Where is what you call the Yeomanry Ball?’

‘At Exonbury.’

‘Have you ever been to it before?’

‘No, sir.’

‘Or to any ball?’

‘No.’

‘But did I not say a gift — a present?’

‘Or a treat?’

‘Ah, yes, or a treat,’ he echoed, with the air of one who finds himself in a slight fix. ‘But with whom would you propose to go?’

‘I don’t know. I have not thought of that yet.’

‘You have no friend who could take you, even if I got you an invitation?’

Margery looked at the moon. ‘No one who can dance,’ she said; adding, with hesitation, ‘I was thinking that perhaps —’

‘But, my dear Margery,’ he said, stopping her, as if he half-divined what her simple dream of a cavalier had been; ‘it is very odd that you can think of nothing else than going to a Yeomanry Ball. Think again. You are sure there is nothing else?’

‘Quite sure, sir,’ she decisively answered. At first nobody would have noticed in that pretty young face any sign of decision; yet it was discoverable. The mouth, though soft, was firm in line; the eyebrows were distinct, and extended near to each other. ‘I have thought of it all day,’ she continued, sadly. ‘Still, sir, if you are sorry you offered me anything, I can let you off.’

‘Sorry? — Certainly not, Margery,’ be said, rather nettled. ‘I’ll show you that whatever hopes I have raised in your breast I am honourable enough to gratify. If it lies in my power,’ he added with sudden firmness, ‘you SHALL go to the Yeomanry Ball. In what building is it to be held?’

‘In the Assembly Rooms.’

‘And would you be likely to be recognized there? Do you know many people?’

‘Not many, sir. None, I may say. I know nobody who goes to balls.’

‘Ah, well; you must go, since you wish it; and if there is no other way of getting over the difficulty of having nobody to take you, I’ll take you myself. Would you like me to do so? I can dance.’

‘O, yes, sir; I know that, and I thought you might offer to do it. But would you bring me back again?’

‘Of course I’ll bring you back. But, by-the-bye, can YOU dance?’

‘Yes.’

‘What?’

‘Reels, and jigs, and country-dances like the New-Rigged-Ship, and Follow-my-Lover, and Haste-to-the-Wedding, and the College Hornpipe, and the Favourite Quickstep, and Captain White’s dance.’

‘A very good list — a very good! but unluckily I fear they don’t dance any of those now. But if you have the instinct we may soon cure your ignorance. Let me see you dance a moment.’

She stood out into the garden-path, the stile being still between them, and seizing a side of her skirt with each hand, performed the movements which are even yet far from uncommon in the dances of the villagers of merry England. But her motions, though graceful, were not precisely those which appear in the figures of a modern ball-room.

‘Well, my good friend, it is a very pretty sight,’ he said, warming up to the proceedings. ‘But you dance too well — you dance all over your person — and that’s too thorough a way for the present day. I should say it was exactly how they danced in the time of your poet Chaucer; but as people don’t dance like it now, we must consider. First I must inquire more about this ball, and then I must see you again.’

‘If it is a great trouble to you, sir, I—’

‘O no, no. I will think it over. So far so good.’

The Baron mentioned an evening and an hour when he would be passing that way again; then mounted his horse and rode away.

On the next occasion, which was just when the sun was changing places with the moon as an illuminator of Silverthorn Dairy, she found him at the spot before her, and unencumbered by a horse. The melancholy that had so weighed him down at their first interview, and had been perceptible at their second, had quite disappeared. He pressed her right hand between both his own across the stile.

‘My good maiden, Gott bless you!’ said he warmly. ‘I cannot help thinking of that morning! I was too much over-shadowed at first to take in the whole force of it. You do not know all; but your presence was a miraculous intervention. Now to more cheerful matters. I have a great deal to tell — that is, if your wish about the ball be still the same?’

‘O yes, sir — if you don’t object.’

‘Never think of my objecting. What I have found out is something which simplifies matters amazingly. In addition to your Yeomanry Ball at Exonbury, there is also to be one in the next county about the same time. This ball is not to be held at the Town Hall of the county-town as usual, but at Lord Toneborough’s, who is colonel of the regiment, and who, I suppose, wishes to please the yeomen because his brother is going to stand for the county. Now I find I could take you there very well, and the great advantage of that ball over the Yeomanry Ball in this county is, that there you would be absolutely unknown, and I also. But do you prefer your own neighbourhood?’

‘O no, sir. It is a ball I long to see — I don’t know what it is like; it does not matter where.’

‘Good. Then I shall be able to make much more of you there, where there is no possibility of recognition. That being settled, the next thing is the dancing. Now reels and such things do not do. For think of this — there is a new dance at Almack’s and everywhere else, over which the world has gone crazy.’

‘How dreadful!’

‘Ah — but that is a mere expression — gone mad. It is really an ancient Scythian dance; but, such is the power of fashion, that, having once been adopted by Society, this dance has made the tour of the Continent in one season.’

‘What is its name, sir?’

‘The polka. Young people, who always dance, are ecstatic about it, and old people, who have not danced for years, have begun to dance again, on its account. All share the excitement. It arrived in London only some few months ago — it is now all over the country. Now this is your opportunity, my good Margery. To learn this one dance will be enough. They will dance scarce anything else at that ball. While, to crown all, it is the easiest dance in the world, and as I know it quite well I can practise you in the step. Suppose we try?’

Margery showed some hesitation before crossing the stile: it was a Rubicon in more ways than one. But the curious reverence which was stealing over her for all that this stranger said and did was too much for prudence. She crossed the stile.

Withdrawing with her to a nook where two high hedges met, and where the grass was elastic and dry, he lightly rested his arm on her waist, and practised with her the new step of fascination. Instead of music he whispered numbers, and she, as may be supposed, showed no slight aptness in following his instructions. Thus they moved round together, the moon-shadows from the twigs racing over their forms as they turned.

The interview lasted about half an hour. Then he somewhat abruptly handed her over the stile and stood looking at her from the other side.

‘Well,’ he murmured, ‘what has come to pass is strange! My whole business after this will be to recover my right mind!’

Margery always declared that there seemed to be some power in the stranger that was more than human, something magical and compulsory, when he seized her and gently trotted her round. But lingering emotions may have led her memory to play pranks with the scene, and her vivid imagination at that youthful age must be taken into account in believing her. However, there is no doubt that the stranger, whoever he might be, and whatever his powers, taught her the elements of modern dancing at a certain interview by moonlight at the top of her father’s garden, as was proved by her possession of knowledge on the subject that could have been acquired in no other way.

His was of the first rank of commanding figures, she was one of the most agile of milkmaids, and to casual view it would have seemed all of a piece with Nature’s doings that things should go on thus. But there was another side to the case; and whether the strange gentleman were a wild olive tree, or not, it was questionable if the acquaintance would lead to happiness. ‘A fleeting romance and a possible calamity;’ thus it might have been summed up by the practical.

Margery was in Paradise; and yet she was not at this date distinctly in love with the stranger. What she felt was something more mysterious, more of the nature of veneration. As he looked at her across the stile she spoke timidly, on a subject which had apparently occupied her long.

‘I ought to have a ball-dress, ought I not, sir?’

‘Certainly. And you shall have a ball-dress.’

‘Really?’

‘No doubt of it. I won’t do things by halves for my best friend. I have thought of the ball-dress, and of other things also.’

‘And is my dancing good enough?’

‘Quite — quite.’ He paused, lapsed into thought, and looked at her. ‘Margery,’ he said, ‘do you trust yourself unreservedly to me?’

‘O yes, sir,’ she replied brightly; ‘if I am not too much trouble: if I am good enough to be seen in your society.’

The Baron laughed in a peculiar way. ‘Really, I think you may assume as much as that. — However, to business. The ball is on the twenty-fifth, that is next Thursday week; and the only difficulty about the dress is the size. Suppose you lend me this?’ And he touched her on the shoulder to signify a tight little jacket she wore.

Margery was all obedience. She took it off and handed it to him. The Baron rolled and compressed it with all his force till it was about as large as an apple-dumpling, and put it into his pocket.

‘The next thing,’ he said, ‘is about getting the consent of your friends to your going. Have you thought of this?’

‘There is only my father. I can tell him I am invited to a party, and I don’t think he’ll mind. Though I would rather not tell him.’

‘But it strikes me that you must inform him something of what you intend. I would strongly advise you to do so.’ He spoke as if rather perplexed as to the probable custom of the English peasantry in such matters, and added, ‘However, it is for you to decide. I know nothing of the circumstances. As to getting to the ball, the plan I have arranged is this. The direction to Lord Toneborough’s being the other way from my house, you must meet me at Three-Walks-End — in Chillington Wood, two miles or more from here. You know the place? Good. By meeting there we shall save five or six miles of journey — a consideration, as it is a long way. Now, for the last time: are you still firm in your wish for this particular treat and no other? It is not too late to give it up. Cannot you think of something else — something better — some useful household articles you require?’

Margery’s countenance, which before had been beaming with expectation, lost its brightness: her lips became close, and her voice broken. ‘You have offered to take me, and now —’

‘No, no, no,’ he said, patting her cheek. ‘We will not think of anything else. You shall go.’

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 19:22